It was on a long bus ride toward Sarajevo, past shells of houses full of grass and dirt, that I first became aware of the idea of atrocity tourism. The capital of Bosnia Herzegovina is a lovely place. Apart from being visually stunning — a collection of low-set buildings and homes, part European, part Ottoman, nestled below a mountain range — the city is the Jerusalem of Europe, a mix of faces, foods and politics. But visiting even twenty years after the market bombings and snipers’ bullets makes you question your motives. Is it right or wrong, a sign of intellectual curiosity or tasteless voyeurism, to take a picture of a bomb crater? To look at bullet holes, spread across the body of an apartment building like mosquito bites, and think that might make a cool Instagram photo?
The idea of gawking at devastation through a camera lens comes up early — and often — in Holiday in Cambodia, Melbourne writer Laura Jean McKay’s first story collection. In fact, it’s right there in the first few pages. “I’m going to India after this,” an Australian man tells his friends in the book’s opening story. “You have to go, it’s dire,” one of the others replies. “You’ve never seen so many people. Sleeping in sewers. People with no legs.” From the outset, the reader understands the inference. This is what constitutes tourism in this part of the world. Shock, revolt, pity.
Much of what makes Holiday In Cambodia sing is this kind of disconnect — the Us and the Them. We recognise the Us in the book, from our beach holiday to Thailand, our African game-hunting excursions, our quick jaunt to Vietnam for a tailored suit. Across the collection, it’s the (often Australian) tourists, aid workers and expats that we recognise. It’s in the way they take advantage of their host nation — financially, culturally, sexually — and do it with a mix of pity, superiority and disgust. “Adam suggested they let Doug sleep it off and go get breakfast. Somewhere good. With bacon and sausages, the lot.” These are the final lines of ‘Taxi’. When you read them, conscious of the fact that the characters involved spent the previous night reaffirming their manhood in a Cambodian brothel, you know everything you need to know. The Them is the locals. The ones whose names you can’t pronounce; the ones who work in a bar because their family, devastated by years of civil war, couldn’t afford school; the ones who sell their bodies to foreign men.
Sure, these seem like pretty static representations. Darn exploitation! Wretched colonialism! But it’s how McKay finds new space inside the third-world tourism paradigm that proves her talent. In ‘If You Say It, It Must Be True’, an Australian couple, whose marriage is unsteady, visit Phnom Penh. They go to a bar, where the husband wants to give the waitress $150 so she can do an English course and get a better job. The waitress just happens to be really attractive. You’re not sure whom to pity: the Cambodian woman, for the patronising way she’s treated, or the man’s wife, of whom McKay writes: “She didn’t pretend he was someone else but someone different.”
McKay is equally impressive shifting her focus from the tourists to the locals, and it’s in this way that we see Cambodian culture from the inside. Set at various times over the past sixty years, before and after the Vietnam War and the reign of the Khmer Rouge, these stories become political. We see the many ways this country is still being pushed down: the unfair wages in the Western factories, the children who play near fields riddled with land mines, the somewhat ineffectual presence of aid groups. (Anyone who was morally outraged recently by the way Bangladeshi factory workers are treated will find a lot to ark up about here.) McKay tells these stories with conviction and subtlety, asking questions but never offering answers. Her relationship to Cambodia seems personal and familiar. As a writer she tries to sit back, stay objective — and mostly she does — but writers have feelings, too. This country, and its many problems, has clearly taken hold of her. (In fact, though there are few reasons to fault this collection, one is the few instances when McKay’s empathy burns a little too bright. The story ‘Massage 8000’, as uncomfortable as it makes you feel — and that’s the idea — also makes you feel you’re being preached to.)
McKay’s style varies impressively. She can do first-person recitation, a few pages of spare prose. This works best in ‘A Thousand Cobs of Corn’, in which a land mine clearer tells her story. The subject matter already has the goods; no embellishment necessary. And she can swing from the bleak to the absurd. ‘Vampires from Cambodia, Susan from Australia’, so funny and dark, reminded me of the George Saunders story ‘Sea Oak’: it strays just a little from the realm of reality, like a dog free to roam but still tethered to the pole.
The stories here are not simple, end-to-end tales. In fact, ‘pieces’ is probably a better word for them. (Steven Carroll, on the jacket cover, calls them “Hemingwayesque snapshots”.) They seem not complete but rather just a part of a whole. And that whole, as it begins to appear across the pages of Holiday in Cambodia, is a little like a destroyed house in Bosnia or Cambodia or some other war-torn land: a shocking, but fascinating thing.
Laura Jean McKay’s Holiday in Cambodia is available now through Black Inc. RRP 24.99
This review first appeared at Women’s Agenda sister publiation Crikey.